Tuesday, August 30, 2011

3BRATS - DRM LYF - S26 R3 - What Do License Plates Tell Us About the Driver?

[There's a 4pm update below]

We've all been warned about books and their covers, but what about drivers and their license plates?

The biggest problem is assumptions.  We make assumptions all the time.  Many are reasonable to make, carefully.  As long as we:
  • recognize our assumptions as assumptions
  • consider the probability of our assumptions being accurate, and 
  • realize at the end that we could be way off

then making assumptions about the link between the plate and the driver won't lead you too far astray.

So, what are some general assumptions to be careful of?
  • We assume the driver is the person who picked the vanity license plate.  There's probably a good chance of this, but sometimes a spouse, child, friend, or thief might be driving the car.  (Do thieves avoid cars with vanity plates because they are easier to remember or do they just change the plates when they steal them?)  Or maybe someone bought the car with the plates. (In Texas for $5 you can keep your plates and transfer them to another car when you sell the old one.)
  • We assume our understanding of what the plate means is also the owner's.  Any communication between people is fraught with potential misunderstanding.  With the abbreviated messages necessary on plates, there is greater difficulty.  But even if we get the message, do they mean it seriously or ironically?  What did they intend to convey? 
So, let's look at a couple of license plates I've seen recently to play with the issues of interpretation.  (I realize I'm sliding into an area that has been labeled semiotics or 'the science of signs' by some scholars.  So let me give a nod to those who have studied this much more thoroughly.  From Daniel Chandler's Semiotics for Beginners:

We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above all, we are surely Homo significans - meaning-makers. Distinctively, we make meanings through our creation and interpretation of 'signs'. Indeed, according to Peirce, 'we think only in signs' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.302). Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. 'Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign', declares Peirce (Peirce 1931-58, 2.172). Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as 'signifying' something - referring to or standing for something other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions. It is this meaningful use of signs which is at the heart of the concerns of semiotics.)


This is an SUV in Anchorage.  Who puts '3BRATS' on their license plate?  Is this an abusive parent who's venting her frustration through her license plate?  Or is this a great family where the kids have bought the plate as a teasing present for a parent?  I'm sure there are lots of other possibilities. 


First, I'm assuming this license plate I saw in LA is intended to mean "Dream Life"  and not "Drum Life" or any thing else.  Could 'LYF' stand for something other than Life?  These aren't just the initials of the people who own the car, right?  Nothing's for certain.

There are other clues (or, if this were a mystery, red herrings to lead us astray.)

It's a Cadillac SUV, so this person has money.  Ha! Another assumption.  Maybe they owe $40,000 on the car and they're desperately scrambling to pay the monthly payments.  

And the license plate holder says "Malibu" one of the more glamorous and expensive places to live in the LA area.

So there are three signs here that suggest 'the good life.'   Now, what is someone saying when they put "dream life" (assuming that's what it is) on their license plate on their Cadillac SUV with a Malibu license plate holder?
  • Are they bragging?
  • Are they trying to make others believe they've made it?
  • Are they dreaming?
  • Are they just so excited because their life is perfect?
  • Are they telling us they've fulfilled their dream?
And are they considering how others might interpret this?
  • Car thieves
  • Unemployed, homeless, and others facing misfortune, whose 'dream life' is a nightmare?
  • Those with old money? (I'm assuming people with old money would NOT have this license plate)
  • People whose dream life is about ideas or relationships but not things?
  • Marketers?
Of course, if you think too much about what others think, you couldn't do anything.  But it does seem that some awareness about others is a good thing.

S 26 R3

 This one I could look up.  From the California Department of Motor Vehicles website:

Click to enlarge

So, this belongs to a retired (the small r) Senator (the big S) from District 26 (links to jpg map of district), and it's the 3rd vehicle owned by a former Senator in this district.  I'm guessing, since there are more than one retired Senators from this LA district (the two most recent are Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kevin Murray according to Wikipedia), that the R3 could mean the 3rd plate in general or a 3rd plate for a particular retired Senator, or the 2nd plate of the 2nd retired Senator.

So, why would a retired Senator want to identify him or herself this way? Some possible answers:
  • They are proud to have served the people of the district and want people to know they are around in case they want to talk to them.
  • Status
  • Hope police treat him more leniently.

It's not because the license plates are free, because they aren't.  I checked with the California DMV and Technician 553 told me that legislators and retired legislators pay for their plates.  The only Californians who get free license plates are disabled vets.

It would be interesting to ask the people why they got their plates, but usually the car is in traffic or it's parked and no one's around.  But I bet it won't be long before we'll be able to use cell phones to call the drivers near us.  Probably that's already happening and I just don't know.  

The Alaska DMV referred me to the Alaska Legislative Affairs Office and the person there is checking on whether Alaska legislators pay for their special plates.  I'll add that later.
[IT'S LATER - 4pm:  Pam Varni at Legislative Affairs called back to say that:
  • Alaska legislators get sent a free license plate
  • They still have to pay for their regular license plate and keep it current
  • They may put the legislative plate on their car or not, it's up to them
  • Only a sitting legislator may have a legislative plate on the car
  • They used to be numbered 1, 2, 3   . . . with the Governor being 1, Lt. Governor 2, Senate President 3, Speaker of the House 4, and then by seniority.  That ended five or ten years ago.
  • Now the Governor and Lt. Governor get their own plates and House and Senate get H and S plates.  H1 and S1 go to the heads of those two bodies and the rest are numbered by seniority, not district.   She knew of at least one time when a legislator traded another legislator to get the plate with the number of his district.]
I did find out that non-profits and churches in Alaska, with the right paperwork, can get license plates for their vehicles for $10.  Add that to the issues of the last post on property tax-exempt houses.


  1. My ex mother in law had a vanity plate on a used Cadi that meant, "Mom's Dream" which my ex and sibs bought for her. The car was ok, but nothing amazing. I wouldn't be seen in it.

    I teased my 15 year old that I'll get a plate that says VITB12. She joked that she'd not get a permit, but she was only teasing. A vitamin on wheels still gets her places!

  2. Thanks for the comment TNC. Jeffery Martin also left a comment about why he has "poet" on his motorcycle plate, but the comment is on the post about him.


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